Salvaging Hard Drives and Other Storage Devices


There is nothing like an up-to-date backup in an SOL (Safe Off-site Location) or on an online service to protect your data. But if you did not have one, all is not necessarily lost. A data recovery service may be able to salvage your data from a crashed or damaged drive.

There is a good chance that data on a wet drive can be saved, especially if the computer has not been turned on after it got wet. While a fire may completely melt a hard drive, recovery specialists can often recover data from a fire-damaged drive.

Desktop Computer

  • Be sure computer is unplugged.

  • If computer is wet, pour out residual water.

  • Do not attempt to dry - this may further damage a hard drive.

  • Open computer case. Unplug, unscrew and remove hard drive(s), being careful not to touch the circuit board. Static electricity in your body may damage the drive. (Note: if you are not familiar with the inner workings of a desktop computer, you may need to get a professional or a tech-savvy friend to assist you.)

  • Seal drive in ziplock bag or wrap in plastic and tape shut. Use a static-free bag or static-free plastic or foam wrap.

  • Do not freeze: store as close to room temperature as possible.

  • Take or send the drive to a hard drive recovery specialist for data recovery.

Computer manufacturers use different schemes to attach hard drives to the chassis. If it is not evident how to remove the drive, you may need to consult instructions from the manufacturer of your computer. Most of these deal with installing a new drive - so just follow the instructions in reverse. Here are a couple of sites that have illustrated instructions:

An illustrated article on removing a hard drive from a PC

An article on installing an internal hard drive in a Mac Pro

Notebook Computer

  • Be sure computer is unplugged and battery is removed.

  • If computer is wet, pour out residual water.

  • Remove and bag the hard drive as above or bag the entire notebook computer (Notebook drives can be tricky to remove) . Use an antistatic bag like the one computer components come wrapped in if possible. If not, wrapping in water-resistant paper like waxed paper before bagging or wrapping in plastic may help protect it from static.

Flash (thumb) Drives and Memory Cards

  • If plugged in to a computer or other device, turn off and remove the drive or card. 

  • If the data on the drive or card is critical, you may wish to try professional data recovery.  If you are doing this and the drive or card is wet, keep it wet, and wrap it in static-free plastic or bag it in a static free bag, so that it does not dry out.

If the data is not critical, or you need to try to recover the data immediately, you can try the following, knowing that if these measures fail, the data may be permanently destroyed:

  • If drive or card has been in salt water or other contaminants, rinse thoroughly in clean water. Please read about clean water.

  • Place in a plastic bag with silica gel or, if that is not available, bury it in a bag or sealed container of dry (uncooked) rice for several days, until dry.

  • If drive works, download files to another device immediately in case the drive later fails. If drive does not work, try further drying.

Data Recovery Services

Professional data recovery comes at a price, often $400-$2,000 for a typical hard drive. But, the loss of important data can be devastating to a business. Most data recovery services offer an initial consultation for free or for a fee after which they can give you an estimate of the cost of recovery and how much data can be recovered.

While there is disk recovery software available at a modest price, it will not work on a drive that has been damaged by flood or fire, and should be used only to attempt to recover non-critical data if a drive has not been physically-damaged. Turning on a damaged drive may forever ruin your chances of recovering the data.

Drives should be well-packed with bubble or foam wrap and securely-boxed before shipping. Blows to the drive can result in severe data loss.

Tip: If you have business insurance, your policy may cover data loss, and possibly pay the cost for a service to attempt to recover your data. Read your policy and call your agent.

More information:

Hard Drive Healers: Getting Your Data Back is an article from PC Magazine about Ontrack, one of the largest data recovery companies.

Ontrack Data Recovery offers a variety of recovery services.

Drive Savers offers free evaluation and firm quote for recovery.

Hard drive manufacturer Seagate offers a variety of data recovery services.